Women work to promote female participation in the home of golf.
ANDREWS, Scotland –– The Swilcan Bridge is a site Jacqui Trangmar gets to see often, just out the windows of an all-ladies social club at St. Andrews Golf Course.
The stone pedestrian bridge near the 18th green at the renowned Old Course is a place where Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and more have celebrated victories in the British Open, at the very home of the game. Trangmar has walked across the spot at the end of a round, too, many times.
Just a few holes away from this glorious landmark of golf is another course where the sport is celebrated and enjoyed. The difference is it’s a place where Trangmar and other women are not welcome as golfing members.
In fact, the New Golf Club, founded in 1902, admitted lady members from St. Regulus, another ladies club in St. Andrews, as social members for £10 ($13) only in 2020. Then, in 2021, they raised membership to £120 ($156).
“That left me with a nasty taste,” 65-year-old Trangmar, who is a member of St. Rule, the all-ladies social club with a large golf section in St. Andrews. “Because it was like we took a step forward –”
“And now we’ve gone backward,” added Nichola Beaument, another St. Rule member.
Suddenly raising the cost of a social membership for women illustrates an ongoing problem for golf in Scotland, one that could derail efforts to boost the popularity of the ancient game.
St. Rule’s dining room windows offer a spectacular view of the green links at the Old Course in St. Andrews. Even in 2022, as the world is just waking up from the covid pandemic, many golfers roam about the course sporting neutral colors and Open-branded polos. It’s a place amateurs dream of playing.
What you don’t see on the course is many women.
In Scotland, where golf was invented, there are over 550 golf courses. However, only 14% of Scottish golfers are women — that’s roughly 25,240 registered golfers — and few hold administrative roles on courses and in clubs.
In 2014, the R&A, an organization that supports the activities within golf in St. Andrews, voted to let women into the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. However, due to a highly selective and long membership selection process, the number of women members is only slowly increasing.
Meanwhile, the members that have been admitted must use the changing room at the Forgan House, 100 yards away from the Royal and Ancient clubhouse.
Eight years after the doors opened, plans to renovate the basement at the Royal and Ancient to accommodate the new lady members have not been completed, according to St. Rule Managing Secretary Richard Philip.
Nearby, Muirfield Golf Club, also known as the Edinburgh Honorable Golf Club, remained all male for even longer.
In 2016, the R&A removed Muirfield from the Open Championship rota, the system of nine golf courses selected to host the Open, after the club only had 64% of members agree to women members, not reaching the two-thirds majority vote to change the rules.
To support the idea of a mixed club, the R&A joined forces with the Ladies’ Golf Union in January 2017 to push for a different result. In the same year, in an 80% “yes” vote, Muirfield Golf Club members approved women joining the club and regained their Open status from the R&A.
In 2019, Muirfield admitted its first 12 women members.
“The Scottish government has pushed really hard the past 10-15 years to make the rules awkward for clubs that remained all male, so they’ve really pushed the agenda,” Philip said.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of Scotland’s government, applauded Muirfield’s vote to allow women in 2017, tweeting, “Well done, Muirfield – decision to admit women members emphatic & the right one. Look forward to seeing you host the Open again in future.”
Even now, at courses other than Muirfield, some male golfers outside hold a different perspective when it comes to the changing landscape of the sport, citing the history and “tradition” of Scottish golf.
In the dining room at St. Rule, soft-spoken ladies sporting varying shades of pink polos shared stories about their day’s round with tea in hand. Trangmar drank tea at one of the tables with two other lady members, discussing a more serious topic.
“A lot of them (the men) are very old-fashioned and haven’t moved into the 21st century,” Trangmar said. “Gentleman’s only, ladies forbidden, some of them hold that attitude.”
Just next door at the St. Andrews Club, men wearing Rolex watches laughed loudly, taking a break from their coffee to follow the St. Rule members inside with their eyes.
Trangmar describes St. Andrews club as “Neanderthal Land.”
“One guy turned up and said, ‘What if she wants to use my toilet?’” Trangmar said. “Why would a woman want to use a man’s toilet?”
A DIFFERENT MODEL
Beyond the issue with getting women into clubhouses and into memberships at St. Andrews, an even greater obstacle plaguing women’s golf in Scotland seems to be one of demographics – a lack of new blood. An answer, however, is not far away.
North Berwick golf course sits on the picturesque Firth of Forth, about 20 miles south of the St. Andrews’ Old Course. The channel of water separates the ancient world of Scottish golf and the new world, where women are visible on course and in the clubhouse administrative office. But it’s taken a lot of work to get there.
“As a young female, the vast majority of the ladies I was interacting with were probably my grandparents’ age,” said Elaine McBride, the general manager of the North Berwick course.
A major problem facing Scottish golf today is the large age gap between juniors and older ladies. Golf is often a game where people gather to enjoy the outdoors, socialize and meet friends – more often, looking for those their own age.
“There’s quite a social void between those age groups,” McBride said, recalling how it was to play the game in her youth. “It felt as though you were a bit of a nuisance. I felt as though they didn’t want you there.”
So, McBride has taken on the role of introducing more young women to golf with North Berwick’s Get into Golf Scheme. The program has 55 women and offers a special membership, allowing easy access to the course.
McBride, a former British military intelligence officer who forged a career in golf course management after her service, is now attacking the problem of gender inequity head on. She has a goal of getting club membership to 500, with a ratio of 200 ladies and 300 men. Currently, there are 130 female golfing members.
Said McBride: “One of my objectives is, if another female is entering golf now, she doesn’t experience what I’ve experienced.”
MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS
Traveling southwest across Scotland, to the seaside town of Prestwick, lies another old course, Prestwick St. Cuthbert, where mother-daughter duo Catherine and Alison Malcolm are members.
Both women are accomplished golfers at the local level. And already, Alison’s 2-year-old daughter, Mila, has shown interest in joining them.
“Mila loves running about the course,” Alison said. “She’s got her own golf clubs for Christmas.”
When Mila is old enough to be able to hold a real golf club, there will be lots of girls to join her throughout her junior golf journey, her mom said.
But will she still have friends with whom she can play golf, if she sticks with it into adulthood?
While young girls might enjoy the game at first, Mila’s mom and grandma have watched most of them drop the sport by the time they hit 18.
Even Alison, who now plays golf frequently and loves the sport, had doubts in her adolescent years about choosing golf as her sport.
“I used to do dance, then ended up deciding between the two because they were just like clashing so much,” she said. “I ended up doing dance.”
It wasn’t until her late teens that Alison picked golf back up more seriously. But now at 21 years old, Alison is the youngest lady under 30 at her course.
As McBride has in North Berwick, David McLure, general manager of St. Prestwick Cuthbert, has devoted a big chunk of time to get women, including those ages 18 to 40, into golf.
At Prestwick St. Cuthbert last year, there were only 40 ladies compared to the 650 total playing members. Now there are 50 to 60, thanks to McLure’s four-week introduction to golf program.
“It was just simply to give them an opportunity to find out how to play,” McLure said. The program is £25 (about $33) for the four weeks, and he saw a huge turnout of women aged 20 to 30, a demographic his club has had trouble attracting in the past.
The program not only provides a structured environment to new women golfers, but also a supportive community where women starting out in golf can feel welcome and included.
“A lot of gents will come in and sign up on their own,” McLure said. “Whereas ladies don’t tend to do that as they join in groups or with a friend.”
With so many members at Prestwick St. Cuthbert, there is always someone to play golf with. However, for ladies, choosing to play in a group with men instead of an all-female group is not something one sees often. Even sitting in the clubhouse, men talk amongst themselves and just 20 feet away, the ladies eat lunch together.
“I don’t see them mixing as much as we would probably like,” McLure said.
McLure played golf at Black Hawk College in Moline, Illinois, getting to experience American golf courses and the culture there as well. He noted that he saw more women and men playing together as families than they do in Scotland.
In America, where 23% of golfers are women, it’s quite common to see a wife and husband playing together, even sometimes with their children. It’s different in Scotland.
“I think there (American) families just socialize more,” McLure said. “Whereas over here it’s just basically one goes to one thing, and one goes to another.”
“Maybe they don’t like each other, I don’t know,” McLure joked.
However back at North Berwick, McBride noticed the dynamic is changing to having more families out on the course.
“Grandparents are more immersed in golf,” McBride said. “I’d think kids are getting into golf from their grandparents more so than their parents, we see that here.”
“It has the potential to be a family activity,” McBride said. “Golf is a great sport. We are so blessed in Scotland and it’s so accessible.”
The changing atmosphere in golf at North Berwick, Prestwick St. Cuthbert and even St. Andrews all signal progress. The next step may be changing attitudes toward women in golf – for good.
“What’s the difference that’s going to make the difference?” McBride said. “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think somebody out there does and there has to be a fundamental shift change or else we will be having the same conversation.”
Trangmar also wonders if, one day, she might sit at the same table overlooking the Old Course’s 18th green and see a new view –– one where women are more present throughout the course, in the clubhouse and on the links with other women or with men.
“Women who play on the Old (Course) is probably in proportion to the amount of women who play at the moment,” Trangmar said. “We are slowly progressing into the 21st century.”